23rd Mar 2011 5:00pm-7:00pm

Grand Parade

Dr Mike Roper (University of Essex)

The term ‘nameless dread’ was coined by the Kleinian psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion in the 1950s to describe what happens to the child when emotional communication with the mother breaks down. Bion had been a tank commander in the First World War, and in this paper, I argue that the term ‘nameless dread’ had an emotional precursor for Bion and other soldiers in the psychic landscape of trench warfare. The physical violence of shelling and the sight of bodies blown apart threatened mental disintegration, which, forty years after the war, Bion would conceptualise in terms of the infant’s sensation of ‘nameless dread’. Bion’s experience suggests that it was not just the Second World War, but the First which played a role in the development of the ‘British school’ of object relations psychoanalysis in the mid-twentieth century. The paper also raises questions about cultural histories of the First World War, which, in concentrating on public myths and memories, have largely ignored the threat of psychic dissolution and its unconscious legacies.

Michael Roper is a social and cultural historian of twentieth-century Britain. His research spans the fields of subjectivity, memory, psychoanalysis and war. He is the author of The Secret Battle. Emotional Survival in the Great War (Manchester, 2009), co-editor (with Timothy Ashplant and Graham Dawson) of The Politics of War Memory and Commemoration (2000), and has published numerous articles on methodology, personal sources and the history of subjectivity. He has a particular interest in the Kleinian psychoanalyst and veteran Wilfred Bion, and is currently researching the history of First World War veterans and family relationships in interwar Britain.

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